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Global News Health

Xi Takes On New Risks With Failing COVID-19 Strategy

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China is caught between its strategic priority of strong economic growth, which will be crucial if China is to achieve its ambition of global political dominance, and escalating COVID-19 cases across the country.

But while most nations have balanced vaccination with reopening, the Chinese Communist Party maintains that vaccinations and a zero-infection rate must go together. In turn, authorities are moving to reimpose strict lockdowns on movement and gatherings. This is further repressing retail spending growth and threatens China’s economic targets for the end of 2021.

While Chinese President Xi Jinping might be tempted to loosen the zero-infection focus, it’s unclear whether his CoronaVac and Sinopharm vaccines offer sufficient protection from the delta variant. Nature reported that recent studies appear to show these vaccines aren’t working all that well, with antibody levels plummeting after just a few months. This would seem to risk fueling China’s susceptibility to rolling infection waves.

Xi faces another complication.

While he might otherwise be tempted to allow looser safeguards in service of economic interests, Xi is desperate to ensure the success of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Those Olympics, scheduled for February, are seen by the regime as crucial to its public relations campaign to woo the international community. This interest has taken on added importance in the context of rising international criticism of China’s human rights record. Xi sees the Beijing games as a crucial means of consolidating a better presentation of modern China.

But the risks of Xi’s zero-case obsession aren’t simply economic.

While their ability to challenge regime diktats is limited, more Chinese may lose patience with Xi’s strategy. These citizens are already beset by rolling power shortagesnew restrictions on their consumer freedom, and punitive regulatory actions. This has fueled rising criticism on social media. The party’s continued zero-case strategy thus risks being seen as a choice to put party interests before those of the people.

Within the middle-class populations of major Chinese cities, it has not gone unnoticed that the rest of the world has generally reopened. Some may conclude that the government’s much-vaunted vaccines have not worked and that the Chinese Communist Party’s broader strategy is not working. True, the available evidence suggests that the vast majority of Chinese remain loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. Nevertheless, Xi and his inner circle are extraordinarily sensitive to the possibility of political acrimony against party interests. (Hence their obsession with pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, for example.)

As time goes on and the rolling lockdowns continue, Xi will fear that more of his 1.4 billion citizens might start wondering whether their leaders are leading all that well. But if he changes course, Xi risks his narrative of competence.